Letters from an American Revolutionary general, complaints from North Carolina settlers and efforts to lobby 18th century legislators were introduced as evidence Tuesday as a federal judge took up a case about who owns the riverbed under four dams.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle opened a nonjury trial to rule on a 2013 state challenge to whether Alcoa Inc. had property rights to build the hydropower dams beginning a century ago. The dispute is about who will control the flow of North Carolina’s second-largest river system and billions of dollars of clean, hydroelectric water for the coming decades.
Lawyers for both sides dug deep into the state archives and the Library of Congress to review accounts dating to before and soon after North Carolina became a state upon ratifying the Constitution in 1789. Boyle is deciding whether boats could navigate the Yadkin River at statehood, when the 13 original states took control of their navigable rivers and could decide how to manage them.
The evidence included a prominent 18th century landowner describing shipping goods past the 40-mile segment where the dams now stand to the seaport at Georgetown, South Carolina, and suggesting the state improve the route.
“That would be principal evidence of actual navigation,” said James Gulick, an attorney representing the state.
Former state historian Larry Tice cited letters from Continental Army Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene describing boats his men carried on wagons that allowed them to cross the Yadkin when they needed to escape from British Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis.
Alcoa attorneys say they can prove the river wasn’t navigable at independence, solidifying its ownership of titles the company says show it had before building the dams. Company lawyers referred to letters from Moravian settlers who bought frontier land in the 1750s from a British earl and were upset to learn they couldn’t navigate the Yadkin or any other nearby river.
Alcoa lawyers also introduced the testimony of river scientist Michael Harvey, who said his modeling led him to conclude the river was too fast, rocky and steep to be a reliable highway for trading after the state’s independence.
“The river couldn’t be used for commerce even though small boats might make it through the shoals,” Alcoa attorney Mike McKool said.
Alcoa’s dams once powered an aluminum smelter for most of the 20th century and employed hundreds of workers. They were laid off, and the plant closed in 2007. The company has sold the electricity to commercial customers since then.
With the jobs gone, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his Democratic predecessor, Beverly Perdue, have resisted a new federal license for Alcoa that would allow it to continue operating the dams for up to 50 years. Alcoa sold a similar hydropower complex on the North Carolina-Tennessee border for about $600 million in 2012, seven years after receiving a new 40-year license and three years after shutting down production at its smelter in Alcoa, Tennessee.
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